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volume 1
january 1999

Building a mystery


  How to make a simple progression into a complex rock song
  by Ger Tillekens

Repetition, some musicologists tell us, lies at the heart of rock music. [1] To prove this, they not only point at the rhythms, but also at the harmonic structures of rock music. Indeed, in many rock songs almost identical patterns of chord material recur over and over again. Sometimes even a whole song is built on the repeated sequence of just the same few chords. Sarah McLachlan's recent and beautiful song "Building A Mystery" offers a perfect example of precisely such a song. It is based on the chord progression: Bm -» G -» D -» A. Almost instantly the song opens with this sequence and then it keeps going on till the end. Still, as a whole the song doesn't sound monotonous or boring. Not without reason: a swift modulation or key shift keeps changing the semantic meaning of the chords. Here Ger Tillekens discusses the whereabouts and attraction of this specific progression and the intricate working of the key shift.


Surfacing. Sarah Ann McLachlan is a Canadian folk-rock singer. She was born in 1968 in Halifax (Nova Scotia). Still at school, she set her first steps in the world of rock music in the new wave movement of the mid eighties. Not yet twenty she had her first album Touch (1988). It was followed by Solace (1991) and Fumbling Towards Ecstacy (1993). Her third album brought McLachlan some fame in the United States. Some years later she released a multimedia EP The Freedom Sessions (1995) and a B-side album Rarities, B-sides And Other Stuff (1996). She became known worldwide with her fourth album Surfacing (Arista), which hit the charts in 1997. The album breathes a gloomy, dark and introspective atmosphere. As she says herself: "Surfacing is about me finally growing up and facing ugly things about myself. We all have a dark side; it's bullshit to say that we don't. At some point we're going to have to face that." The lyrics are poetically balanced. Musically the album has no flaws. Each song is as impressive as the other ones. The band plays at its top and Sarah's voice tumbles effortlessly in every direction where the lyrics take her emotions.

2 Building a hit record. A good record still can sell itself. Surfacing entered the charts at number two in the United States. In her homeland of Canada the album even reached a number one position, selling only about 7,000 records less than the soundtrack of the then popular movie Men in Black. The album not only did sell very well. It was also received with praise in the papers and in the music press commentaries. The same goes for Surfacing's first single Building A Mystery, written by Sarah and her producer and engineer Pierre Marchand. The single almost instantly became a hit in Canada and the United States. It took some time, but somewhere in the middle of 1998 the clip reached MTV Europe to attract some following under attentive listeners on the old continent.
Song structure. Now listen for a moment to the start of the song. It will take just about thirty seconds, but you'll get the picture. The track on the CD itself takes a full four minutes and seven seconds. That makes "Building A Mystery" rather long for a rock song. The structure of the song shows why. There is a lot going on within the confined space of this song. The song starts with a short intro, followed by a first verse and next a short bridge and a break. Then we hear the second verse coupled to a long bridge, followed by the refrain. Next there's a third verse, again coupled to a long bridge and the refrain. A guitar solo, twice the refrain and an outro finish the track. The verses, the break and the refrains are all built upon an identical harmonic structure. So the main pattern of the song is repeated at least seven times. Now, let's take a look at the lyrics of the first verse along with the tablature or guitar tabs as transcribed by one of Sarah's ardent fans, Derek Phoungphol (look here for the complete transcription).
|Bm                  |G                   |
 You come out at night,

|D                   |A-Asus4-A           |
 that's when the     energy comes,

|Bm                  |G                   |
 And the dark sides light,

|D                   |A-Asus4-A           |
 and the vampires    roam.

|Bm                  |G                   |
 You strut your      rasta wear,

|D                   |A-Asus4-A           |
 and your suicide    poem,

|Bm                  |G                   |
 And a cross from a faith that died

|D                   |A-Asus4-A           |
 before              Jesus                came:
4 Lyrics. In the lyrics a woman voices her complaints about her lover. The text not only expresses a complaint, however. At the same time it is an analysis of the reason why she finds herself attracted to him. She describes him as a man who is hiding his inner self behind a careful constructed image, letting nobody look at his emotions deep down inside. The poetic lyrics of the first verse seem a direct inversion of the ironic "Suzanne" of the old master of Canadian folk-rock, Leonard Cohen (the first track of his 1968 album The Songs of Leonard Cohen). Instead of the rags and feathers of Cohen's Jesus hippy Suzanne, Sarah's nameless character is dressed in Rasta wear. The Christian cross of Suzanne is replaced by a Celtic one. Cohen's sun, which "shines like honey on our lady of the harbor", has gone down under the horizon; in McLachan's song the only light comes from the street lamps of a city at night, where "the vampires roam". A short bridge directly follows upon this description:
  Short bridge:
|E           |G                   |A-Asus4-A  |
 came:        you're building a    mystery.
5 A conclusion. The short bridge is formulated as some sort of conclusion following upon the description. All this man is doing, is aimed at one and the same thing: building a mystery. The way it is sung, makes it sound like a conclusion too. And again the person that McLachlan addresses, is the opposite of Cohen's Suzanne. Where Cohen pictures his Suzanne as acting really authentic, McLachlan's lover is constructing his identity to give an impression of mysteriousness to the outside world. This line is followed by a break, which takes us back to the now familiar chord pattern. A definite conclusion is not voiced, but keeps hanging in the air:
|Bm          |G       |D-Dsus4-D  |A-Asus4-A  |

Chord material. The CD on which the song is released, is really up to date. It has a separate multimedia partition, which you can play on your computer. There is much to see and to hear; even a clip where Sarah plays a live version of the song. On this movie you can see that she has put a capo at the seventh fret (see the picture at the right). [2] Phoungphol's transcription however skips the capo and as he rightly says, that way it sounds as good. His chords for the recurrent progression are, as we have seen: Bm -» G -» D -» A. The last chord is slightly accentuated by a change in one of the constituent tones, which transforms the A chord into a suspended chord, the Asus4.

7 Suspended chords. Like all ordinary major and minor chords the A chord is built out of three tones; in this case: A - C# - E. In Asus4 the place of the major third C# has been taken by the fourth D. That's half a tone up. It is rather easy to play on the guitar. As Phoungphol writes, most of the time you just play the 'sus4'-notes by bringing one extra finger — the little finger — into play on the neck of the guitar. Changing the A chord into Asus4 steers it toward the D chord and this little trick imparts a dreamy touch to the interpretation of the lyrics. It goes as easily with other chords, especially the E and D. The subtle effect of changing a chord into a 'sus4' chord within the span of one measure is very popular in folk-rock. It is for instance a favorite of Leonard Cohen (again listen to his "Suzanne"). In McLachlan's song the change in the tone material of the chord also has some interesting musical implications. We'll come to that later. For the time being we will treat the progression just as plain Bm -» G -» D -» A. For now that's already complicated enough. Depending on the key we choose, it can be interpreted by the singer — and analyzed by us — in two ways. For key A the progression can be formulated as: ii -» flat-VII -» IV -» I; and for key D as: vi -» IV -» I -» V. We'll start here with the last one.

Cadences. In music, classic and popular alike, there are many harmonic progressions or so-called cadences. Most known, of course, is the old standard: C -» F -» G -» C or I -» IV -» V -» I. It consists of the three basic chords, the tonic I, the subdominant IV and the dominant V. Taken together these three chords follow a semantic logic. In relation to each other, they all add some kind of meaning to the lyrics. The tonic symbolizes the place, where the singer stands voicing the dialogues or monologues of the song. With the subdominant the song takes a step back as if the singer retreats in an inner world to think something over. The dominant on the other hand can be interpreted as a step forward. Combined with this chord we often find lyrics in which the singer addresses someone else explicitly.

9 Around and around. Some progressions can easily be repeated over and over again. Often they start with the tonic and end at the dominant, which then leads back to the tonic again. A well-known progression is the turn-around, which consists of four chords: I -» vi -» IV -» V. As you see, it ends at the dominant. This dominant 'leads' to the tonic. Ending a sequence on the dominant, will raise the listeners expectation that the tonic — and with it the whole previous chord sequence — will return again. A good example of the workings of the turn-around is the well-known song "Please Mr. Postman" of Brian Holland, Robert Bateman and Berry Gordy. It was originally performed by The Marvelettes in 1961 for the Motown label and some years later the song was successfully covered by the Beatles in 1963 on their album With The Beatles. When you listen to this song, you can hear how the dominant V at the end of the chord progression keeps asking for a return of the progression itself. The same goes for Sarah's progression vi -» IV -» I -» V. Though the other chords are shuffled and the tonic at the start is replaced by the submediant vi, the dominant V at the end still asks for a return of the progression. The combination of dominant and submediant here is the musicological mechanism that drives the progression forth in its circular repetition.
10 Relative minors. The song "Please Mr. Postman" shows still another aspect of the turn-around, which is the working of the submediant, the minor chord vi. This chord is called the relative minor of the tonic, because both chords share important tones. The D chord for instance consists of the tones: D - F# - A; whereas its relative minor Bm is built out of: B - D - F#. In folk music and rock music major chords and their relative minors are closely connected. The combination of the tonic I and its relative minor vi serves as a double tonic. This kind of music is called modal music and the history of this kind of progressions goes as far back as the passamezzo antico dance music of the Italian Renaissance. The subdominant and dominant have their own relative minors. Coupled to the subdominant IV is the supertonic, the relative minor ii. And the dominant's relative minor is the mediant iii. In the semantic logic of the chords these relative minors add their own meaning to a song. A switch to these relative minor chords lends a personal touch to the lyrics. It sounds as if the singer addresses someone familiar in a confidential, private way. In the lyrics these chords often accompany personal pronouns used in friendly conversation like "you", or "I", as you can see in the refrain:
|Bm          |G       |D-Dsus4-D  |A-Asus4-A  |
 Yeah, you're working, building a  mystery,

|Bm          |G       |D-Dsus4-D  |A-Asus4-A  |
 Holding      on,      holding     it in,

|Bm          |G       |D-Dsus4-D  |A-Asus4-A  |
 Yeah, you're working, building a  mystery,

|Bm          |G       |D-Dsus4-D  |A-Asus4-A  |
 And   choo-  sing so  care- ful-  ly:
11 Chain of fourths. The progression of "Building A Mystery" can be interpreted as a clever and beautiful reorganization of the common turn-around. There are two cumulative fixes. First there is a switch of the first two chords (vi -» I instead of I -» vi) and then there is a consecutive switch of the second pair (IV -» I instead of I -» IV). The combined result is that the progression starts with the relative minor and therefore in a confidential, personal way, followed by a stepwise series: G -» D -» A. This last series also has some special characteristics. It is an upward going chain of fifths: G -» D -» A, which strictly speaking, of course, is a chain of fourths. In the semantic logic of the basic chords this means two successive steps forward. That's also the way it is used in the song. It sounds especially good in the refrains. Here this sequence accompanies the phrase "Holding on, holding it in". Here the singer concludes her description of her lover keeping up appearances, endlessly holding on to his self-build image and at the next step holding his own emotional self in. The monotonous repetition of stepping up the chain of fourths strengthens the impression of his never-ending involvement with his self image. It gives the song the character of a traditional work song or chain song. The chain of fourths makes it sound like he is walking a treadmill.
12 The closing of the song. Now we have seen how the progression adds some meaning to the lyrics. But there is more to the song. The song closes with a last refrain, directly followed by a concluding outro. As the song nears its apotheosis there is a decisive end in last line of the lyrics: "You're building a mystery". This time the progression leads toward the A chord without any added or changed tones. It sounds like ending with an exclamation mark! The last chord is an A chord, which seems to make the concluding end into a direct confrontation of the singer with her lover. The mystery has become a double mystery: the mystery he is building and the mystery why she loves him. The song seems to end on the dominant. But is it really the dominant? The answer to this question depends on the key the song is in. Is it key D, then the song surprisingly ends at the dominant. Is it key A, then the progression must be interpreted as: ii -» flat-VII -» IV -» I instead of: vi -» IV -» I -» V.
|Bm          |G       |D          |A          |
 You're buil- ding a   mystery.

In the key of ... The answer to the question of how we have to interpret the progression depends on the answer to the question which key the song is in. It is clear that the song ends on an A chord. In music theory this is an important clue for the tone center of a song. Moreover, in Phoungphol's interpretation, it also starts with this chord. Taken together this means, the song is unmistakably in key A. Thus, so it seems, up until now we have been on the wrong track and the progression must be analyzed as: ii -» flat-VII -» IV -» I. There is, however, a way to escape from this solution. If we assume, that there is some kind of a key shift or modulation in the song, we can still cling to our interpretation of the progression as: vi -» IV -» I -» V.

  |Asus4 - A - open (Em) ||Bm  |G        |D   |Asus4 - A |
A:|I     - I -       v   ||ii  |flat-VII |IV  |I         |
                         ||    |(pivot)  |    |          |
                 D:| ii  ||vi  |IV       |I   |V         |
14 Pivot chords. For the intro it is not so difficult to show that there is a modulation going on from the key of A to the key of D. In general at the start of a song, when only just one chord has sounded, a listener does not yet know which chord will be the tonic. Most of the times the first chord will function as a starting point and one will take it as a first guess. But, to get some feeling for a song, the listener first has to identify the tonic more clearly. The only way to do this is to place the tonic by ear in its relationship to other chords, like the subdominant and the dominant. In this case, after the first five measures, the listener still is not sure. In the transcription above we can see, that most chords can be interpreted as rather common chords in both keys. Between the first and second measure the song for a moment even seems to shift to the key of E Minor. Only in the sixth measure, when the lyrics start on the Bm chord, the tonic can be placed as a double tonic on Bm and D. Then the listener knows, that somewhere in the first five measures there has been a modulation from the start on A — a fifth backward — to D. Unconsciously, orienting himself, the listener will try to find the turning point in the harmony. In music theory these points are called 'pivot' chords. Here, the rather unusual flat-VII, the subtonic, in the second measure is a good candidate for such a pivot chord.
15 A new point of view. The key shift or modulation here goes a fifth downward. From the original tonic A we arrive at its subdominant, which then becomes the new tonic. In the semantic logic of the basic chords, this means a retreat into the private world of inner thoughts. In this way the key shift underlines harmonically that the singer is voicing her ideas for herself. At the end the modulation again brings the singer a step forward. She has thought it all over and is now ready to progress to a new position, a new point of view. She has come to a conclusion that she can formulate and tell in public. In this way the key shift adds some crucial feeling to the song. The same mechanism is at work in the bridges. Where the refrains sound rather complaining, the long bridges turn these complaints into an open declaration of love. Here again the key shift is doing its job.
Long bridge:
  |E                |             |
D:|II               |II           |
  |                 |(pivot)      |
A:|                 |V            |
   You're so beautiful,

  |G                |             |
D:|                 |             |
A:|flat-VII         |             |
   With an edge and a charm, and,

  |E                |G            |A-Asus4-A     |
D:|                 |             |    V         |
  |                 |             |    (pivot)   |
A:|V                |flat-VII     |I             |
   So careful,       when I'm     in your  arms
16 Changing chords. In the short bridge, which we saw earlier on, the modulation is called forth by the introduction of the E chord, the dominant V of A. The long bridges follow the same pattern, but this time it goes on for a longer period. With the forward modulation the singer, taking one step forward, addresses her lover in a direct way, remembering their embraces. At the end of the long bridge the Asus4 — with its tone D instead of C# — introduces the modulation backward to the key of D. Notice how the semantic meaning of the chords follows the interpretation of the lyrics. In the bridge the G chord turns into a typical blues-chord (flat-VII) with its own semantic ring of desire. Compared with the G in the key of D it really is a different chord with slightly different tones. In the key of D it is the fourth of D, whereas in the key of A it is the minor third of E. When sung the right way — as McLachlan expertly does — the tones of both chords do sound slightly different. Notice also how the modulation gives the word 'careful' a more positive meaning. The E chord in the fifth measure of the long bridge underlines the phrase where the singer says that the carefulness with which our night bird constructs his identity is paralleled by his carefulness as a lover. Here the E chord is the fifth of A, whereas in the first measure it is the supertonic II of D and again a chord with slightly different tone material. So both the G and E chord change the sound and the meaning of the lyrics. This change of chord material, caused by the modulation, is an integral part of the attraction of the sequence.
17 So, what can we learn from this song? Not only in the bridges, but also in the remainder of the song there is some indeterminacy about the key. In the verses and refrains sometimes Sarah's voice seem to lean slightly to the key of A, thereby changing the semantic meaning of the chords to her interpretation of the lyrics. It is this ambiguity which keeps the song from becoming boring and predictable. There are some lessons to be learned from this song. The first one is, that some Canadian songwriters do write good rock songs. This seems especially important for Europeans, who tend to neglect Canada's rock musicians unless they first have become popular in the United States, like Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell. The second point affects music theory. We have learned something about cadences, relative minors, suspended chords, the chain of fourths and about key shifts and their impact on the interpretation of chords. And, as we have seen, all this musicological stuff abounds in this seemingly simple song, that therefore is not so simple at all. Maybe that is the third and most important lesson to be learned: simple songs and cadences are often not so simple as they may seem at first sight. Most of the time in rock songs there are some complex musicological mechanisms at work behind the facade of simple repetition.

Sarah's progression. Female rock singers made a deep impact as they definitively entered the rock scene in the nineties as autonomous singer-songwriters. Many of their songs are built around repetitive cadences like this one. At first glance these songs seem rather simple and repetitive. Of course repetition is an important element of rock music. It cannot be denied that repetition gives rock songs much of their compelling character. However, as we have seen, a lot of variation can be made with the help of just a few chords. Being not so repetitive after all, "Building A Mystery" offers good prove of that. Here Sarah McLachlan turns a simple progression into a complex rock song. Unless someone somewhere used it earlier on in a song, Sarah's Progression seems an appropriate name for this rock cadence. [3]

1. A musicologist who stresses repetition as the central characteristic of rock music is for instance Richard Middleton; see his book Studying Popular Music. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1990. Return to text

2. The tablature made by Mark Ferris (November 2d, 1997), is based on this live version. Here a capo is set at the seventh fret. Therefore, other finger settings can be used for the progression. We would expect the series: Em -» C -» G -» D. Ferris, however, presents us with the progression: Em -» Cmaj7 -» Gmaj6 -» Em9. This may seem slightly different, but the outcome is almost the same. Not to correct or even better Ferris, but just to explain some of the discrepancies, let's take a short walk along the chords.

  The Cmaj7 can, without any damage to the song and even better, be played as C: x32010. The Gmaj6 got — if we take a good look at the finger settings (see the picture above) — the wrong name. In fact it is just an ordinary G. The same goes for the Em9, which comes out as a Bm9. This last chord can also better be played as 35400x and then it becomes a Dmaj7. The Emaj7 and Emaj6, that in Ferris' transcription take the role of the Asus4, both result in plain D chords when we play them as 35500x and 35000x. The sequence then becomes recognizable again: Em -» C -» G -» D. In fact only the variation A -» Asus4 -» A of Phoungphol differs significantly from Ferris' Dmaj7 -» D -» Dmaj7 -» D. By the way: the tone C# that's found in Dmaj7, can be used to accentuate a coming modulation or shift to the key of G. In this respect the workings of Ferris' Dmaj7 can be compared with Phoungphol's Asus4. Return to text
3. A more general and by now accepted name for this progression is the "sensitive female" chord progression. This label was stuck to the progression by Boston Globe columnist Marc Hirsh. Hirsh became attentive of the chord progression by hearing the song "One of Us" by Joan Osborne. He used this label because the same chord progression jumped to the front in many other songs in the late 1990s, most conspiciously in the songs of many members of the Lilith Fair. Hirsch's label was coined at the year-end of 2008, and therefore the label suggested here clearly has priority (see: Hirsh, Marc (2008), "Striking a chord," in: The Boston Globe, December 31, 2008). The label "Sensitive Female Progression" may be preferable, because of its more general character. Discussing this progression, the guitarist's website Money Chords also points at the closely related progression I-V-vi-IV. [Note added November 8, 2012] Return to text
  The video clip, most pictures, all tabs and factual information about Sarah McLachlan on this page come from Derek Phoungphol's excellent fan site Holding on to Ecstacy. The short sound fragments on this page are copyrighted: "Building A Mystery" 1997 © Arista Records. They are used here according to the rules of fair use and academic quoting. This article is part of a series of essays on individual rock songs and albums: Rock song anatomy.
  1999 © Soundscapes